Friday, March 31, 2017

Leadership Lessons Series: Protecting Participants

Key Verse

"The thief only comes to steal, kill, and destroy. I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly." John 10:10 WEB


As a high school student, I heard a lot about suicide and how to spot it. I never thought it would affect me. Everyone at my private Christian school was happy, they all had loving parents and would never think of such things, right? The day my principle came into our 9am class was a wakeup call. We immediately knew something was wrong by the look on his face and the fact that he never came during the middle of class. He told us Caleb*, one of our classmates, had attempted suicide early that morning by swallowing an entire bottle of ibuprofen.

Suicide affects all races, classes, and age groups. Worldwide someone dies from suicide every 40 seconds. The sad part is that it is completely preventable. Is your ministry doing anything to prevent it? With just a few simple steps you can help reduce the risk of suicide among participants in your ministry. The first step is to avoid my mistake, know that everyone is at risk. Being a Christian, or appearing highly social and upbeat does not make one immune. People can fake those things.

Step two is to follow a few simple guidelines to reduce risk and be prepared for an attempt. While participants may not attempt suicide during an event with your ministry, you may unwittingly expose them to suicide aids. Also, know that, teens especially, can attempt during overnight trips where they are away from home.

Now that you have acknowledged that your participants (of all ages) are at risk, lets discuss the guidelines you can implement. The first line of defense is education. All staff (including volunteers) should know the basic signs and what to do. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national nonprofit that offers education and a hotline. This one page link tells you all you need to know about spotting and stopping suicide. Review the Warning Signs with each new staff and yearly with current staff. Include it in routine training. Post them along with the hotline number 1-800-273-8255. Add this number to the list of emergency numbers staff carry on trips. Go ahead and have them put it in their contacts. Of course, they can always dial 911.

Warning signs include:

· Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves or looking for a way.
· Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
· Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
· Talking about being a burden to others
· Withdrawing or isolating themselves

Another important guideline is preventing access to suicide aids. This is especially important for ministries working with minors and adults with a history of depression or suicidal thoughts. The most obvious aid is medication. You likely have a first aid kit. People also carry over the counter and prescription medication. Access to these should be controlled, especially on overnight trips! The American Camps Association (ACA) has specific guidelines for medications. All oral medications must be kept under lock and key, period. Only medially trained staff can administer them. For non-ACA members a staff trained in first aid will work fine. Non-oral medications may be kept unlocked.

First aid kits stored in a facility may not have any oral medication, if they do a small combination lock box can be effective. Or store them in a locked closet with cleaners and chemicals. These should be locked away at all times too! On overnight trips with minors or adults with a history be sure to collect all medications prior to departure. Check with parents of minors and explain your purpose. They will be grateful for your measures! On trips I lead, including backcountry trips such as backpacking, I like to keep all medications in a lock bag. It fits in my bag better than a box! Checkout the Master Lock Model 7120D.

Other aids include sharp objects. If you know someone suffers from depression and suicidal thoughts it is a good idea to constantly observe them while using these tools. Afterword, make certain they don’t keep any. All new participants and staff in my outdoor ministry receive basic knife safety instruction. That way everyone knows the rules. Here is a good example of rules.

The last key guideline I will offer is to know your participants. This is not always possible, but do your best. The main goal is to build report with them. If they trust you and other staff they will be more open with their feelings. People contemplating suicide feel vulnerable and worthless. Trust is everything. Also remember that it is often easier to talk to someone you slightly know than someone you know well. So new participants may find it easier to open up. The other way to know your participants is to learn their history. If your ministry has an application form include a short survey of medical problems and history. A checklist of common problems like you might see at the doctor’s office makes it easy for people to select. Include “history of depression” in this list. This is no guarantee applicants will be forth coming, but the easier it is to select it they more likely they will share.

Caleb had always been such an outgoing, cheerful guy. It was a shock to all of us. The principle informed us that a few minutes after taking the medication Caleb had called a friend and confessed. Because the friend had received the suicide education with the rest of the school he knew what to do. An ambulance was dispatched and medical staff were able to save his life! Without that education who knows what would have happened. Caleb’s friend might have thought he was joking and wasted precious time. Education saved Caleb’s life, will you help it save another?

*Actual name has been changed for individual’s privacy.
Written by David F. Garner
Photo Credit: Counselling via